Children's Understanding: The Development of Mental Models

Children's Understanding: The Development of Mental Models

Children's Understanding: The Development of Mental Models

Children's Understanding: The Development of Mental Models


This work argues that cognitive development is experience driven, and processes entailed in acquiring information about the world are analyzed based on recent models of learning and induction. The way information is represented and accessed when performing cognitive tasks is considered paying particular attention to the implications of Parallel Distributed Processing (PDP) models for cognitive development.

The first half of the book contains analyses of human reasoning processes (drawing on PDP models of analogy), development of strategies, and task complexity -- all based on aspects of PDP representations. It is proposed that PDP representations become more differentiated with age, so more vectors can be processed in parallel, with the result that structures of greater complexity can be processed. This model gives an account of previously unexplained difficulties in children's reasoning, including some which were influential in stage theories.

The second half of the book examines processes entailed in some representative cognitive developmental tasks, including transitive inference, deductive inference (categorical syllogisms), hypothesis testing, learning set acquisition, acquisition and transfer of relational structures, humor, hierarchical classification and inclusion, understanding of quantity, arithmetic word problems, algebra, conservation, mechanics, and the concept of mind. Process accounts of tasks are emphasized, based on applications of recent developments in cognitive science.


This book presents a theory of cognitive development that gives a central role to children's understanding. One reason for this is that the concepts children understand have a strong influence on the strategies, skills, and competencies they can develop. Furthermore, understanding is no longer a nebulous concept but one that can be rigorously and usefully explicated. This is one of the ways that recent developments in cognition and cognitive science have fundamentally changed the way we view cognitive development; others include the insights cognitive science has provided into the nature of human reasoning, such as the significant role played by memory retrieval processes and analogy. Our conception of what develops has been influenced by research into acquisition of strategies, rules, knowledge of regularities in the world, and the processes entailed in coding and organizing knowledge.

Contemporary models of learning are much more relevant to cognitive development than traditional models, and I have tried to integrate this new contribution into the theory of cognitive development. I have had a longstanding interest in the problems of conceptual complexity and processing capacity, and have drawn on the extensive cognitive science literature on these topics to define their implications for cognitive development more precisely. In this respect, I have found the new Parallel Distributed Processing (PDP), Connectionist, Neutral Net models especially useful, because they have led me to fundamentally new explanations for processing capacity limitations. This has also provided a new basis for phenomena that have been attributed to cognitive developmental stages. The result has been a new synthesis of processes entailed in cognitive development, and one that I personally have found very exciting. I hope I have conveyed something of that excitement in this book.

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